Mongoose 4 – The family

Now the mongeese are at ease although never really friendly, caution still rules. One family made our three homes their territory, a mother who somehow had her tail shortened by half, her mate and two lively youngsters smart and bright as jewels. We always know when they are in the vicinity because the birds set up a furious chatter of warnings when they approach, starting with the guttural growl of the robin.

Their playing together was endlessly amusing. Its real purpose, however, was not just fun – it was training, teaching them how to survive in the big wide world out there.

Hawk Eye Kath, having watered her garden, turned off her hose and planning to use it again later, stuck the nozzle through one of the 25 mm square holes in the plastic mesh fence supporting an ivy creeper between our homes. It hung there about 20 cm above the ground, nozzle down and dripping water, hose coiled lightly behind it, just like a poised snake.

Or so the junior mongeese decided. The instant they saw it from the lawn, their body attitudes changed visibly. One moment they were two exploring kids, the next hunters with every sense sharply alert.

They came in fast but cautious, eyes fixed on the target’s “head”, and attacked. The “snake” disappointed them by not reacting at all, except to flop a bit.

The youngsters quickly discovered this was no real snake, no threat and unfortunately no food. It did not put them off. For the next ten minutes they practised their various modes of attack on the cooperative hose, one distracting while the other struck. They did no damage to it, they obviously knew this was not the real thing but after all, those weren’t all that easy to come by.

Mother watched from the lawn with adoring pride, or whatever that expression was on her usually impassive face. Kath and Dor were given free entertainment one could never buy.

Meet the twins.
Meet the twins.

Father lost most interest in his offspring while they were still small. Thereafter they went everywhere with mother. She brought them right up to Liz’s stoep to show them off. All three stood erect atop a cabinet outside our kitchen looking directly at us until several bonemeal pellets were dispensed.

Then tragedy struck. One morning Liz found the body of one of the youngsters on the main road. It had no visible damage and must have been struck by a passing car.


Mongoose 3 – Food and familiarity

My wife placed a large chicken’s egg on the grass beside the house in the late afternoon when the mongeese prowl. One zoomed past at the bottom of the garden, stopped and raised itself erect on its hind feet to better see the white object.

Encountering lunch Preparing to scramble an egg.

The result was an education in mongoose ingenuity. It streaked up to the egg while we peered through a window. The egg was too big for its jaws. It pawed it about a bit and then did something so unexpected we were taken completely by surprise.

It looked back over its shoulder at a low stone wall. Then it darted back to the egg, stood belly over it as if trying to hatch it and with a hard shove of its forepaws shot the egg hard backwards between its hind feet at the wall. The egg broke, spilling its contents. The mongoose turned and ate only the yolk, tongue lapping it up.

We couldn’t afford endless eggs. But we found a solution which keeps not only the mongeese happy but also many kinds of birds like chats, wagtails, sparrows and robins: bonemeal, the “sawdust” grindings of bone and meal which accumulate beneath a butcher’s electric saws when he is cutting up carcases. It’s not something to feed to animals in quantity, especially birds, but giving them small pellets occasionally helps to soften their instinctive fear of us, only in the familiar environment where we do so.

To be continued next Friday 28 Nov/-

Mongoose 2 – The Cape Greys

Mongeese feed quickly, lower jaws snapping open and shut while their heads move side to side to scan the surroundings constantly.

Through the kitchen window my wife watched a small mongoose suddenly dart behind a plant pot and back out with a small three-striped mouse in its jaws. It fled with its prey when it saw her.

It ran past a bigger mongoose which snatched the mouse away. Then it played with the mouse as a cat does until it became bored and ate it. The small mongoose made no attempt to retrieve its catch.

Mongeese prowling the garden are now a regular sight. They emerge from the scrub and dash at high speed across the lawn, pausing suddenly to stand erect on hind legs and scan all around.

Ours are the Cape grey or small grey mongoose which rejoices in the name Galerella pulverulenta and are common in the Cape Peninsula. They belong to the family Viverridae which

includes civets, genets and those ever-popular television characters the suricates of the Kalahari desert.

They are not plain grey. Their rich, sleek coats are flecked with an exotic touch of white hair. Their feet are dark as if gloved. This gives them the savoir-vivre of royalty gliding up the red carpet, as Liz the Lens put it.

The white flecked fur gives the grey mongoose a speckled look.
The white flecked fur gives the grey mongoose a speckled look.
Their silken paws look as though they are clad for the evening in  long silk gloves.
Their silken paws look as though they are clad for the evening in long silk gloves.

Their highly functional design confers beauty. The adult is about two thirds of a metre long, or a little over two feet, of which nearly half is a long furry tail that expands like a bottle brush when its owner is excited or threatened.

A pair of extremely bright black button eyes stares straight ahead down a sharp triangular face with a pointed nose. Half-disc ears aim forward on the sides of a head which can swivel almost 360 degrees.

Incongruously, when the mongoose opens its mouth wide to yawn or take in food, the inside is bright yellow.

Getting to know them, to persuade them to relax enough for us to observe them closely, was an exercise in animal psychology. That is not as scientific as it sounds because with wild animals psychology is usually spelt “food”.

They are ordinarily very shy and steer clear of humans. Reading up about them, we learned they like eggs and play havoc among the nesting sites of the African jackass penguin in a small Peninsula reserve, to the distress of the rangers there.

To be continued next Friday – Mongeese Part  3 ……

Mongoose 1 – The City Sleekers

We were sitting outdoors one idyllic spring evening, idly sipping sundowners and watching False Bay waves crash whitely on the rocks, when two youngsters appeared on the grass below us, chasing each other at high speed. They hurtled around and around a crassula bush, the pursued stopping suddenly to ambush the pursuer and reverse the chase, as kids do all over the world. A few circuits later they reversed again with an abundance of energy that made us feel ancient.

The game changed abruptly when the chasee stopped dead and the chaser shot up and nipped him the backside.

Then it became a frantic race all over the lawn with harmless ducking and diving when one caught the other. They were still having fun when their mothers arrived, glared at us, each other and their offspring and called them off.

But these were no ordinary kids. One was a mongoose and the other a dassie – two creatures so different their lifestyles have absolutely nothing in common. The kind of contact we watched probably occurs more often than we realise, between animals so young they have not yet learned to distinguish between their kind and others or the prejudices that come with that knowledge. For each of them the other was no more than a playmate.

It makes one wonder whether humans of different ethnic origins might not be more compatible if the prejudices of their adults were not drummed into them.

It’s simply not possible among animals. “The lion shall lie down with the lamb” is wishful thinking, unless the lion is about to have lunch. Strange liaisons sometimes do exist: a parrot and an Alsatian, dog and rabbit, horse and duck. They last probably because there is no competition for food and they are influenced by their human owners.

Both the mongoose and the dassie at play were six to eight weeks old, no longer babies but not quite “teenagers”. The adults of the two species often appear at the same time in the evenings but walk on opposite sides of the street, so to speak, keeping a polite distance apart. The mongeese (forget the etymologists) appear to look down their sharp noses at the dassie hoi polloi guzzling greenery – they, of course, being carnivores: hunters, killers, lovers of fresh (and not so fresh) meat of any kind from beetle to bird to mouse.

Which mongeese are usually doing. They are ruthless hunters and take anything in their path small enough to cope with, up to and including birds up to pigeon size and lizards and will, in true mongoose tradition, tackle quite sizeable snakes, which they eat from the head down. Rats, though, are off the menu: big, tough and ferocious, and with much larger teeth.